SKIING MT. RAINIER
Sam Avaiusini leads us up and down the Muir Snowfield and talks to us about his experiences on the mountain and how to prepare for fun in the backyard of Seattle.
Skiing Mt Rainier is not as crazy and hard as one would imagine, with the right gear, preparation and fitness you can safely skin or hike up the Muir Snowfield and have a long fun ski run back to the visitors center at Paradise. Earlier this May we had the pleasure of skinning up the mountain with ADL member and experienced ski mountaineer Sam Avaiusini. We had a great day and used the hours up and down in the car to learn more about his history in the mountains.
Sam and his wife Lori are some of the original ADL members and have been on three of our DreamTrips, twice to Japan and once to Austria. They also helped develop the Innsbruck add-on portion of the Austria trip two years ago. In all those years I had no idea Sam was such an experienced climber and back country skier. Turns out climbing and skinning up local peaks was a major passion of his. He has summited Rainier 25 times and has made over 100 trips up and down the Muir snowfield on skis. So when Sam picked me up at 530am on a Saturday morning in early May to go skin up the Muir I felt like I was in good company.
When did you first start climbing Rainier and how did your climbing career evolve?
I started skiing on Rainier maybe in 1989. Back in those days, there weren’t too many people skiing up there and back-country ski gear was still in its infancy. We carried our heavy resort gear…skinny K2 race skis, Salomon SX92 rear entry boots, etc; it was kinda brutal back then. I saw a few people on specialized “randonnée” equipment and I quickly paid a visit to Marmot Mountain Works in Bellevue and bought my first dedicated ski touring rig.
I caught the “turns all year” bug pretty early on and I wanted to expand my ski season. Naturally, I set my sights on climbing to the summit of Rainier around that same time and in August of 1991, I got on a guided climb with Rainier Mountaineering (RMI). As a client, they wouldn’t let me bring my skis, but I was one of the strongest clients on the trip and ended up on the fast rope team to the top. My guide, Craig VanHoy, was a veteran on Rainier with 200+ ascents and at the time, he held the speed record for fastest round trip to the summit from Paradise with 5 hours 19 minutes…most people don’t even get to Camp Muir that quickly! Fast forward 30 years and I’ve climbed and skied all the cascade volcanoes numerous times and lots of fun stuff in between. In fact, 20 years ago this week, two friends and I departed for a successful climb and ski descent of Alaska’s Mt. McKinley in 1999. I’ve climbed and skied on many aspects of Rainier including routes like Fuhrer Finger, Emmons Glacier, Kautz Glacier, Mowich Face, Liberty Ridge, Winthrop Glacier, Disappointment Cleaver, Ingraham Glacier.
Fun fact: Back in the 1930’s, there used to be a ski race called the “Silver Skis” on the Muir Snowfield from Camp Muir down to Paradise. I participated in a 2005 re-enactment of what most people would call a Chinese Downhill by today’s standards. Fellow ADL’er, Matt Kuharic actually won the race that year on telemark gear!
More info about that race in 2005: HERE
These days, I consider myself more of a ski mountaineer than a climber. I still get out on the bigger peaks a few times a year, but certainly not as much as I used to.
What are the biggest mistakes you see people make when they go to ski the Muir Snowfield?
The most common mistakes I’ve seen center around not being adequately prepared for conditions. Poor visibility can happen in the best of weather forecasts and can put you in a ping pong ball really quick. Know your coordinates and directions and be careful to not veer off the snowfield in a whiteout. Despite it being called the Muir Snowfield, it is actually a glacier and can develop crevasses later in the season. There are more substantially crevassed glaciers on either side of the Muir Snowfield, so things can go bad fairly quick if you go off route due to bad weather. This is not a controlled environment like you find in a ski area. Obviously there are no lifts and no ski patrol. People have died on these lower flanks of Rainier. It sounds cliche, but RESPECT THE MOUNTAIN.
What’s your best advice for the first timers?
Go with someone who knows the route.
Be prepared for difficult snow conditions, including ice.
Don’t necessarily get hung up on making it all the way to Camp Muir.
Stick to a predetermined turn around time that allows for unforeseen circumstances.
In all your times skiing down the Muir what was the worst situation you have witnessed or experienced?
In winter, I’ve witnessed a couple avalanches that have swept people down the slope from Panorama Point. Know the avalanche forecast. Carry and know how to use all your avalanche equipment and also be sure of your partner’s abilities.
Any other comment/advice for people wanting to ski the Muir and get into BC skiing in general?
Depending on the season, it’s always good to have a couple alternate route objectives in your back pocket in case conditions don’t permit for safe travel on your primary objective. Again, always know the weather and avalanche forecasts. We’re pretty lucky in the Seattle area to have an active outdoor community and numerous well-respected guiding companies that folks can leverage. The Northwest Avalanche Center (NWAC) is also based here in Seattle and there is a wealth of information on their site to help skiers make wise choices in the mountains.
Climbing/Skiing above 10,000ft. on Rainier requires a permit and I would never ever recommend venturing onto glaciated terrain without first seeking thorough instruction from an accredited guide service.
More information can be found here: https://www.nps.gov/mora/planyourvisit/climbing.htm
The drive from Issaquah, WA takes about 2 hours and 20 minutes at that time in the morning. We stopped at a store along the way to get at least 2 liters of water each and some protein bars and a sandwich for the skin up. Staying well hydrated on the climb is critical to avoid getting cramps and dehydration. Our plan for the day was to leave from the Paradise parking lot by about 7:30am to 8:00am and be done by 2pm to avoid the snow getting too soft. The early morning chill keeps the hill firm and easier to climb. Depending on your condition and ability on skins the climb takes anywhere from 3-5 hours to reach Muir Camp. Some people can zip up in 2 hours but that’s really moving.
Our objective for the day was to ski down the Nisqually Chute. The entrance is at 8300′ and the ski down is an awesome wide 2000 vertical drop chute that varies in pitch from 18-32 degrees or 33-62%. Click here for more in depth details on skiing the Nisqually Chute. The Muir Camp is located about 1700′ higher at 10,000′ and is the usual destination for those wanting to ski the Muir snowfield. After 3 hours of skinning up we decided a good place to stop was at 9000′ so we could have lunch, regain some energy and have enough vertical before the chute to get our legs back in ski mode.
We took turns dropping into the Nisqually skiing one at a time, watching each other before coming to a rest after 20 or so turns. We skied the chute in about 3 sections, watching for any signs of avalanche and skiing a fun safe line. Once at the bottom we threw the skins back on and hiked back up for 20-25 minutes towards the original route back to the car. Three hours of climbing for about 45 minutes of really nice and memorable corn snow skiing. A perfect day.
For more technical and in depth details on hiking and skinning the Muir Snowfield click this: https://www.powderproject.com/trail/7000319/muir-snowfield
Also for the Nisqually Chute: https://www.powderproject.com/trail/7000331/nisqually-chute
Backcountry ski packing list:
Skis, Boots, Poles . . .
- Skis – Atomic Backland 107 super light, versatile, works for many conditions from crud to powder to groomers – our choice and a custom ADL version will be available this July.
- Boots – We are in love with the Atomic Hawx Ultra XTD 130 with 4 buckles we use this boot all year long on and off piste
- Poles – Adjustable with powder baskets
- Backpack – you need a BC backpack that can hold all this gear below and have straps to allow you to put your skis on them when you need to hike pan face or other steeper parts of the route.
- Shovel – Voile TelePack or BCA RS Shovel or similar
- Probe – We like the carbon variety but any will suffice
- Beacon – many options to review here
- Skins – Atomic skins work great
- A Puffy Jacket – FlyLow Albert Jacket or other
- Ski Shell – Softshell or waterproof breathable, always have one in your bag in case bad weather moves in.
- Compass – Lightweight insurance in case of bad vis
- Thermos – Small for short days/large for bigger days.
- Water Bottle – we rec atleast 2 liters for the Muir snowfield maybe 3 and have some in the car for when you’re done.
- Sunglasses – We like the club Carreras for obvious reasons
- Tool kit – VersaTool / binding screws / steel wool / lighter / voile straps
- Ski scraper – Handy for ski / skin maintenance while in the field
- Spare gloves/hat
Secondary Backcountry Ski Packing List – conditions or tour dependent gear
- GPS – For bigger days and on tours in unfamiliar areas, I carry a GPS, too.
- Handheld VHF radio (requires license) or FRS/GMRS radio like the BCA BC Link (no license required)
- Ski Crampons – for spring tours and for specific objectives, ski crampons are great.
- Snow Saw – Our fave is the BCA saw
- Rutschcord – We use a homemade one from knotted 2-3mm cord; check out some commercial options
Thank you to Sam for sharing his knowledge and experience with us and for showing us a great day in the mountains.